Motor Racing: Senna on slippery pole

THE statistics record that Ayrton Senna achieved his 64th pole position for today's Pacific Grand Prix at the new TI circuit here, but the narrow margin between the Brazilian and his rival Michael Schumacher underlines the intensity of their battle for the world championship.

Though Schumacher was initially superior on this tight, twisting little circuit nestling in a mountainous region of the Okayama prefecture, Senna attacked strongly on Friday in a Williams that has made a degree of progress since Schumacher's surprise victory in the Brazilian Grand Prix three weeks ago. Senna, however, was noticeably on the ragged edge as he squeezed ahead of Schumacher's Benetton-Ford to snatch the prime honour. The German's counter-attack was then hampered by an experimental suspension set-up that compromised his car's handling.

Yesterday, giving the lie to expectations of snow, the weather was too warm to allow any significant improvements in lap times. That did not stop Senna or his Williams-Renault team-mate Damon Hill trying to better their speeds, but as Schumacher sat in the cockpit of his car, monitoring their progress, both of them lost control and spun. 'It is worrying,' Patrick Head, the Williams technical director, said, 'because both of them spun at the same corner and using the same set-up. We don't yet know if they were just trying too hard or whether something fundamental is amiss.'

'Unfortunately, the track conditions meant we did not have the exciting final qualifying we had all hoped for,' Schumacher said, 'but I think it is better to be second on the grid and first in the race.'

Though he is sandwiched between the Williams drivers on the grid, the pressure on Senna, the pre-season favourite, is greater. It is some while since the Brazilian began a season 10 points adrift of his main rival after the opening race, and the feeling is that today's encounter will favour the nimble Benetton.

Though the struggle between the king and the young pretender was predictable, other aspects of this race have defied expectations. The organisation has been smooth, the weather clement, and even the bus service ferrying media and spectators along the single-track road leading to the circuit has been a model of Japanese efficiency. Though neither the circuit owner Hajime Tanaka nor Bernie Ecclestone, the vice-president of marketing of the governing body, FIA, would admit it, what many saw as a one-off race may now become a fixture.

A successful race today will almost certainly set the seal on such a deal, but the restrictive nature of the circuit is taxing the teams, who expect a tough encounter over 83 laps. The more pessimistic drivers say there is only one likely place for overtaking. Others, such as Martin Brundle, speak of up to three.

Like his McLaren-Peugeot team-mate Mika Hakkinen, the British driver did not run yesterday, preferring to save his tyres for the race itself, where many anticipate that tyres, tactics and tow trucks will prove the key factors.

(Photograph omitted)

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<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
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